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Friday, Nov. 21, 2008

BACKSTREET STORIES

'Tis a gift to be simple

Loosen the purse strings and head to Tokyo's downtown for festive shopping


The best holiday presents wrap themselves — in your arms, that is. The rest of your gift-list responsibilities, whether for Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah or Japanese oseibo (yearend gifts), can be taken care of near Asakusabashi Station. I'm usually way behind schedule getting presents together, but this year I'm worried about jumping the gun as I head off to southeast Taito Ward.

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Christmas spirit: Yoshiharu Sanou, manager of winter-decorations shop Sekisho Masuya, rocks a Santa Claus look. Below: Taniguchi offers high quality traditional Japanese paper. KIT NAGAMURA PHOTOS
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Well, ho, ho, ho, and no, I'm not too early after all. Nearly every store is already decked out in discount fairy lights and fake trees, wreaths, wrappings, ribbons and Santas. It's holiday commercialism gone mad, but there's a creative twist to things calculated to squelch your inner Scrooge. Also, the area is scattered with traditional Japanese shops selling dolls, fans, battledores and other handicrafts, so it's a goldmine for gifts.

Popping out of Asakusabashi Station and dashing left past the lottery booths (fuhgeddaboutit!), I quickly locate bright red signs in katakana heralding two of the famous Shimojima packaging-goods outlets. I spend all morning gawking at floors and floors of wholesale decorative bags, boxes, baubles, seals, gag gifts, foodstuffs and tools. Wall displays offer clever craft ideas and wrapping suggestions, and my cart is loaded by the time I hit the register, where I discover — great glue guns! — they only accept cash.

In fact, most places in Asakusabashi operate on a cash-only basis; it's part of the Shitamachi (old downtown) psychology of the area. It's also worth noting that while there are scads of wholesale stores around, the policy of some forbids catering to individual customers, or may require a bulk purchase to score a discounted price.

Before hunting down a bank, I stop in at Matsuneya, a Japanese folding-fan shop. Here, I find that if I buy five fans, I can get a big price reduction.

"Foreigners usually go for sakura (cherry blossom) or solid-gold-colored fans," laughs 60-year-old storekeeper Kishichiro Fujisaki, "so I put those in the window."

But I prefer Fujisaki's shallow wooden trays of subtly shaded designs, some hand-painted or sprinkled with gold flakes. He patiently explains how each fan is styled for a different use. Kabuki fans are large and graphically dramatic; tea-ceremony fans tiny and more ornamental than functional; and rakugo (comic storytelling) fans are purposely plain so they can be used as stage props symbolizing chopsticks, scissors, pipe or pen. I begin to think these might be light and elegant gifts to send abroad. Kneeling on his shop's tatami floor, much in the way Edo Period (1603-1867) merchants did business, Fujisaki confides that the fans I've chosen cost upward of ¥20,000. "But," he says, taking pity on me, "you can buy 2009 calendars here at half-price."

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Keeping up tradition: Unagi (freshwater eels) come out of the bucket and onto your plate at Yoshida's . Below: An early Japanese typewriter. Bottom: Kishichiro Fujisaki at Matsuneya.
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Before I actually start to carry money to burn, I continue on to Sekisho Masuya, a shop specializing in wreaths, artificial trees and sprays of real leaves gilt in gold and silver. Shop manager Mr. Sanou agrees to model one of the "Mr. Santa" suits he sells, and he lets me know that though he carries every foliage item ever associated with Christmas, "Sekisho Masuya also markets seasonal leaves and artificial floral items all year long." When I visit, the small shop is packed with local and foreign customers.

I wander to the west side of Asakusabashi Station, Bead Town, where a score of shops specialize in beads, findings, settings and craft tools. Some offer the wee nubbins I used to think of as beads, but others show off massive strands of buffalo-horn oblongs, jade disks or hunks of opaline moonstone.

I'm not a beader, but by the time I head out to Edo Avenue again (where the banks are) and wander into Kiwa, the mother lode of beadcraft items, I'm imagining making key-chains or keitai (cell phone) straps for someone special. Kinari, a shop boasting gorgeous, one-of-a-kind glass beads, handcrafted by international and local artists, brings me back to Earth. The beads I like are not cheap, but enrolling in some of Kinari's lampwork classes in glass-beadmaking techniques might lead one to appreciate those prices.

On the same block, I find sleigh bells, cowbells, and cat- and dog-shaped bells at Drop'let, the storefront for Suzu Minami Company, a bell-manufacturing business with over a century of history in the hood.

"Japanese bells have a very beautiful sound," President Kimiko Minami points out, explaining the longevity of her company.

Her words ring in my ears as I check out other venerable shops on Edo Avenue. Though razed by the 1923 earthquake and by firebombs in World War II, Taniguchi Company has been selling hand-stenciled washi (traditional Japanese paper) in exactly the same location since 1890. I purchase several sheets, and when I admit to the shop owner I might wrap gifts with them, she seems horrified.

As I drift into the realm of the Kyugetsu doll emporiums, founded in the 1830s, I begin to get a sense of how washi was meant to be used. Here, intricately folded Japanese paper dolls hold court with porcelain-limbed beauties in elegant brocade kimono that would put polyvinyl-chloride Barbie to shame (although, in fact, the first Barbie dolls were manufactured in Japan and wore hand-sewn clothing).

Behind the doll shops, I stumble upon Sakura Horikiri, a craft-goods outlet with classes on how to transform washi and Japanese materials into puzzles, purses or lampshades, among other creations. Yataro Horikiri, 72, is busy instructing two new employees on how to construct a jewelry box, while his nephew, store manager Hiroshi Horikiri, chats with me in fluent English. It occurs to me that it might be nice to return later and make an eco-friendly paper gift or two.

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But first, I amble toward Sumida River, past small homes burrowed into the arches supporting the Sobu Line train tracks. I smell the pungent smoke from dripping oils and sweet sauce coming from Yoshida's long before I arrive. Here, the unagi (freshwater eels) start out live, and their trip from bucket to lacquer box takes a full 30 minutes, but it's worth the wait. Takashi Yoshida serves up cloud-soft unagi, while his wife Reiko, a stickler for traditional details, decorates side dishes and desserts with fresh leaves or berries she collects from her garden.

"We used to serve geisha returning from work, but maybe they have moved on now," Takashi observes. Sitting at the intimate hinoki (cypress) counter, one can feel the years slip pleasantly backward.

Slowed by good food in good company, I stroll to the other side of the tracks and discover the Japanese Stationery Museum. In the slightly dusty and deserted hall, I gaze in amazement at precomputer Japanese typewriters the size of card tables. Lost in a time warp of elegant Parker, Onoto, Conklin and Pilot fountain pens, bamboo brushes and carved inkwells, I muse that when you can't wrap a loved one in your arms, a handwritten holiday card beats most glitzy gifts.



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